Tag: Roth IRA

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Retirement, Strategies to Save

Why You Should Open Up a Roth IRA for Your Kids

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A Roth IRA is probably one of the most powerful retirement vehicles available on the market. Unlike a traditional IRA, the contributions made to a Roth IRA are pre-tax, which allows you to withdraw your money tax-free after age 59½ .

When it comes to a Roth IRA, it’s important to think of how you can use it in other ways too, namely, how your kids can use one to become financially successful one day. There are two ways unique ways you can use a Roth IRA to help your children.

The first way is to open one in their name that they can use to save for their eventual retirement. The second is to use a Roth IRA in your name as a college savings account.

Both of these options come with pros and cons, and it’s important to know them before deciding if either of them is right for you.

Opening an IRA in Your Child’s Name for Their Retirement

The challenge of opening an IRA in your child’s name is that in order to open an IRA in your child’s name, the child has to have a paycheck. You can see exactly what qualifies as earned income here. It might seem like this is impossible, but it’s not. Entrepreneurial parents all over the country who see the value in early retirement savings are taking advantage of this.

For example, if you run a business, you can employ your children to stamp your mail, be models for your brochures, and even manage your social media. As long as you issue them a 1099 or a W2 for their work, they are eligible to open a Roth IRA.

Another negative is that you can’t supplement your child’s income to reach the $5,500 cap on Roth IRA contributions. They can only put in what they earn up to $5,500. So if your child only earns $1,500 from working part-time at an ice cream shop one summer, they can only invest $1,500. However, if they earn $6,000 from that same ice cream shop, they can only invest $5,500.

When children have a Roth IRA in their names, the money is officially theirs. This is different from earmarking a savings account for them in your name. Instead, this is money that they earned going into an account that can benefit them in retirement. The biggest pro is that this is an awesome teaching tool for them. You can really show them how their money can compound and grow over the years.

Even if you start the Roth with a small amount and never touch it again, a one-time $5,500 investment (the current Roth IRA contribution limit) can grow to over $100,000 at a 6% return if your child lets it grow from age 12 to age 62. Fifty years of compounding interest will do that!

What an awesome gift that would be if your child never touched this until they were at their retirement age and got a bonus six-figure payout from work they did when they were a kid. That’s a good memory to leave with them.

Opening a Roth IRA in Your Name as a College Savings Account

Many people don’t realize that another great benefit of a Roth IRA is that you can use it as a college savings account. You could use a Roth IRA in your child’s name for their college savings, but let’s say your child doesn’t work, or if they do, you’d rather they kept the IRA for their own retirement one day.

If that’s the case, you could use your own Roth IRA for their college savings, and here’s why. According to Certified Financial Planner, Matt Becker, “If the money is used for higher education expenses for you, your spouse, your child, or your grandchild, there is no 10% penalty.” (Usually, if you withdraw earnings from a Roth before age 59 ½ there would be a penalty, but not if the money is used for college.)

The downside to all this is that if you use this money for your child’s college education, then you’re not saving it in your Roth for your own retirement someday, and that’s pretty important! The pro is that your money isn’t locked into a 529 plan where you have to use the money for qualified higher education expenses. Another interesting pro is that 529 assets are counted toward your Estimated Family Contributions on the FAFSA, but investment accounts, like Roth IRAs are not.

That said, it’s important to look very closely at the differences between 529 plans and Roth IRA plans if you want to use your Roth as a college savings vehicle. Additionally, if you are a high-income earner, you might not be able to contribute to your own Roth IRA unless you do what’s called a backdoor IRA. The current 2017 income limit for Roth IRA contributions is a $186,000 annual income for those who are married and filing jointly or $118,000 for those who are single.

As you can see, Roth IRAs are great accounts for a variety of different savings purposes, and you should try to think outside the box when it comes to using them to help your children create a bright financial future.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Cat Alford
Cat Alford |

Cat Alford is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Catherine at cat@magnifymoney.com

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Investing, Life Events, Strategies to Save

Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

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Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The Roth IRA versus traditional IRA debate has raged on for years.

What many retirement savers may not know is that most of the debate about whether it’s better to contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is flawed.

You’ve probably heard that young investors are better off contributing to a Roth IRA because they’ll likely be in a higher tax bracket when they’re older. You’ve probably also heard that if you’re in the same tax bracket now and in retirement, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA will produce the same result.

These arguments are part of the conventional wisdom upon which many people make their decisions, and yet each misses some important nuance and, in some cases, is downright incorrect.

The Biggest Difference Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

There are several differences between traditional and Roth IRAs, and we’ll get into many of them below.

The key difference is in the tax breaks they offer.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are not taxed up front. They are tax-deductible, meaning they decrease your taxable income for the year in which you make the contribution. The money grows tax-free inside the account. However, your withdrawals in retirement are treated as taxable income.

Contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed up front at your current income tax rate. The money grows tax-free while inside the account. And when you make withdrawals in retirement, those withdrawals are not taxed.

Whether it’s better to get the tax break when you make the contribution or when you withdraw it in retirement is the centerpiece of the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate, and it’s also where a lot of people use some faulty logic.

We’ll debunk the conventional wisdom in just a bit, but first we need to take a very quick detour to understand a couple of key tax concepts.

The Important Difference Between Marginal and Effective Tax Rates

Don’t worry. We’re not going too far into the tax weeds here. But there’s a key point that’s important to understand if you’re going to make a true comparison between traditional and Roth IRAs, and that’s the difference between your marginal tax rate and your effective tax rate.

When people talk about tax rates, they’re typically referring to your marginal tax rate. This is the tax rate you pay on your last dollar of income, and it’s the same as your current tax bracket. For example, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you have a 15% marginal tax rate, and you’ll owe 15 cents in taxes on the next dollar you earn.

Your effective tax rate, however, divides your total tax bill by your total income to calculate your average tax rate across every dollar you earned.

And these tax rates are different because of our progressive federal income tax, which taxes different dollars at different rates. For example, someone in the 15% tax bracket actually pays 0% on some of their income, 10% on some of their income, and 15% on the rest of their income. Which means that their total tax bill is actually less than 15% of their total income.

For a simple example, a 32-year-old couple making $65,000 per year with one child will likely fall in the 15% tax bracket. That’s their marginal tax rate.

But after factoring in our progressive tax code and various tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, they will only actually pay a total of $4,114 in taxes, making their effective tax rate just 6.33% (calculated using TurboTax’s TaxCaster).

As you can see, the couple’s effective tax rate is much lower than their marginal tax rate. And that’s almost always the case, no matter what your situation.

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

Why the Conventional Traditional vs. Roth IRA Wisdom Is Wrong

Most of the discussion around traditional and Roth IRAs focuses on your marginal tax rate. The logic says that if your marginal tax rate is higher now than it will be in retirement, the traditional IRA is the way to go. If it will be higher in retirement, the Roth IRA is the way to go. If your marginal tax rate will be the same in retirement as it is now, you’ll get the same result whether you contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

By this conventional wisdom, the Roth IRA typically comes out ahead for younger investors who plan on increasing their income over time and therefore moving into a higher tax bracket or at least staying in the same tax bracket.

But that conventional wisdom is flawed.

When you’re torn between contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA, it’s almost always better to compare your marginal tax rate today to your effective rate in retirement, for two reasons:

  1. Your traditional IRA contributions will likely provide a tax break at or near your marginal tax rate. This is because federal tax brackets typically span tens of thousands of dollars, while your IRA contributions max out at $5,500 for an individual or $11,000 for a couple. So it’s unlikely that your traditional IRA contribution will move you into a lower tax bracket, and even if it does, it will likely be only a small part of your contribution.
  2. Your traditional IRA withdrawals, on the other hand, are very likely to span multiple tax brackets given that you will likely be withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Given that reality, your effective tax rate is a more accurate representation of the tax cost of those withdrawals in retirement.

And when you look at it this way, comparing your marginal tax rate today to your effective tax rate in the future, the traditional IRA starts to look a lot more attractive.

Let’s run the numbers with a case study.

A Case Study: Should Mark and Jane Contribute to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

Mark and Jane are 32, married, and have a 2-year-old child. They currently make $65,000 per year combined, putting them squarely in the 15% tax bracket.

They’re ready to save for retirement, and they’re trying to decide between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. They’ve figured out that they can afford to make either of the following annual contributions:

  • $11,000 to a traditional IRA, which is the annual maximum.
  • $9,350 to a Roth IRA, which is that same $11,000 contribution after the 15% tax cost is taken out. (Since Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, factoring taxes into the contribution is the right way to properly compare equivalent after-tax contributions to each account.)

So the big question is this: Which account, the traditional IRA or Roth IRA, will give them more income in retirement?

Using conventional wisdom, they would probably contribute to the Roth IRA. After all, they’re young and in a relatively low tax bracket.

But Mark and Jane are curious people, so they decided to run the numbers themselves. Here are the assumptions they made in order to do that:

  • They will continue working until age 67 (full Social Security retirement age).
  • They will continue making $65,000 per year, adjusted for inflation.
  • They will receive $26,964 per year in Social Security income starting at age 67 (estimated here).
  • They will receive an inflation-adjusted investment return of 5% per year (7% return minus 2% inflation).
  • At retirement, they will withdraw 4% of their final IRA balance per year to supplement their Social Security income (based on the 4% safe withdrawal rate).
  • They will file taxes jointly every year, both now and in retirement.

You can see all the details laid out in a spreadsheet here, but here’s the bottom line:

  • The Roth IRA will provide Mark and Jane with $35,469 in annual tax-free income on top of their Social Security income.
  • The traditional IRA will provide $37,544 in annual after-tax income on top of their Social Security income. That’s after paying $4,184 in taxes on their $41,728 withdrawal, calculating using TurboTax’s TaxCaster.

In other words, the traditional IRA will provide an extra $2,075 in annual income for Mark and Jane in retirement.

That’s a nice vacation, a whole bunch of date nights, gifts for the grandkids, or simply extra money that might be needed to cover necessary expenses.

It’s worth noting that using the assumptions above, Mark and Jane are in the 15% tax bracket both now and in retirement. According to the conventional wisdom, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA should provide the same result.

But they don’t, and the reason has everything to do with the difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

Right now, their contributions to the traditional IRA get them a 15% tax break, meaning they can contribute 15% more to a traditional IRA than they can to a Roth IRA without affecting their budget in any way.

But in retirement, the effective tax rate on their traditional IRA withdrawals is only 10%. Due again to a combination of our progressive tax code and tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, some of it isn’t taxed, some of it is taxed at 10%, and only a portion of it is taxed at 15%.

That 5% difference between now and later is why they end up with more money from a traditional IRA than a Roth IRA.

And it’s that same unconventional wisdom that can give you more retirement income as well if you plan smartly.

5 Good Reasons to Use a Roth IRA

The main takeaway from everything above is that the conventional traditional versus Roth IRA wisdom is wrong. Comparing marginal tax rates typically underestimates the value of a traditional IRA.

Of course, the Roth IRA is still a great account, and there are plenty of situations in which it makes sense to use it. I have a Roth IRA myself, and I’m very happy with it.

So here are five good reasons to use a Roth IRA.

1. You Might Contribute More to a Roth IRA

Our case study above assumes that you would make equivalent after-tax contributions to each account. That is, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you would contribute 15% less to a Roth IRA than to a traditional IRA because of the tax cost.

That’s technically the right way to make the comparison, but it’s not the way most people think.

There’s a good chance that you have a certain amount of money you want to contribute and that you would make that same contribution to either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Maybe you want to max out your contribution and the only question is which account to use.

If that’s the case, a Roth IRA will come out ahead every time simply because that money will never be taxed again.

2. Backdoor Roth IRA

If you make too much to either contribute to a Roth IRA or deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, you still might be eligible to do what’s called a backdoor Roth IRA.

If so, it’s a great way to give yourself some extra tax-free income in retirement, and you can only do it with a Roth IRA.

3. You Might Have Other Income

Social Security income was already factored into the example above. But any additional income, such as pension income, would increase the cost of those traditional IRA withdrawals in retirement by increasing both the marginal and effective tax rate.

Depending on your other income sources, the tax-free nature of a Roth IRA may be helpful.

4. Tax Diversification

You can make the most reasonable assumptions in the world, but the reality is that there’s no way to know what your situation will look like 30-plus years down the road.

We encourage people to diversify their investments because it reduces the risk that any one bad company could bring down your entire portfolio. Similarly, diversifying your retirement accounts can reduce the risk that a change in circumstances would result in you drastically overpaying in taxes.

Having some money in a Roth IRA and some money in a traditional IRA or 401(k) could give you room to adapt to changing tax circumstances in retirement by giving you some taxable money and some tax-free money.

5. Financial Flexibility

Roth IRAs are extremely flexible accounts that can be used for a variety of financial goals throughout your lifetime.

One reason for this is that your contributions are available at any time and for any reason, without tax or penalty. Ideally you would be able to keep the money in your account to grow for retirement, but it could be used to buy a house, start a business, or simply in case of emergency.

Roth IRAs also have some special characteristics that can make them effective college savings accounts, and as of now Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions in retirement, though that could certainly change.

All in all, Roth IRAs are more flexible than traditional IRAs in terms of using the money for nonretirement purposes.

3 Good Reasons to Use a Traditional IRA

People love the Roth IRA because it gives you tax-free money in retirement, but, as we saw in the case study above, that doesn’t always result in more retirement income. Even factoring in taxes, and even in situations where you might not expect it, the traditional IRA often comes out ahead.

And the truth is that there are even MORE tax advantages to the traditional IRA than what we discussed earlier. Here are three of the biggest.

1. You Can Convert to a Roth IRA at Any Time

One of the downsides of contributing to a Roth IRA is that you lock in the tax cost at the point of contribution. There’s no getting that money back.

On the other hand, contributing to a traditional IRA gives you the tax break now while also preserving your ability to convert some or all of that money to a Roth IRA at your convenience, giving you more control over when and how you take the tax hit.

For example, let’s say that you contribute to a traditional IRA this year, and then a few years down the line either you or your spouse decides to stay home with the kids, or start a business, or change careers. Any of those decisions could lead to a significant reduction in income, which might be a perfect opportunity to convert some or all of your traditional IRA money to a Roth IRA.

The amount you convert will count as taxable income, but because you’re temporarily in a lower tax bracket you’ll receive a smaller tax bill.

You can get pretty fancy with this if you want. Brandon from the Mad Fientist, has explained how to build a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder to fund early retirement. Financial planner Michael Kitces has demonstrated how to use partial conversions and recharacterizations to optimize your tax cost.

Of course, there are downsides to this strategy as well. Primarily there’s the fact that taxes are complicated, and you could unknowingly cost yourself a lot of money if you’re not careful. And unlike direct contributions to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before you’re able to withdraw the money you’ve converted without penalty. It’s typically best to speak to a tax professional or financial planner before converting to a Roth IRA.

But the overall point is that contributing to a traditional IRA now gives you greater ability to control your tax spending both now and in the future. You may be able to save yourself a lot of money by converting to a Roth IRA sometime in the future rather than contributing to it directly today.

2. You Could Avoid or Reduce State Income Tax

Traditional IRA contributions are deductible for state income tax purposes as well as federal income tax purposes. That wasn’t factored into the case study above, but there are situations in which this can significantly increase the benefit of a traditional IRA.

First, if you live in a state with a progressive income tax code, you may get a boost from the difference in marginal and effective tax rates just like with federal income taxes. While your contributions today may be deductible at the margin, your future withdrawals may at least partially be taxed at lower rates.

Second, it’s possible that you could eventually move to a state with either lower state income tax rates or no income tax at all. If so, you could save money on the difference between your current and future tax rates, and possibly avoid state income taxes altogether. Of course, if you move to a state with higher income taxes, you may end up losing money on the difference.

3. It Helps You Gain Eligibility for Tax Breaks

Contributing to a traditional IRA lowers what’s called your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is why you end up paying less income tax.

But there are a number of other tax breaks that rely on your AGI to determine eligibility, and by contributing to a traditional IRA you lower your AGI you make it more likely to qualify for those tax breaks.

Here’s a sample of common tax breaks that rely on AGI:

  • Saver’s credit – Provides a tax credit for people who make contributions to a qualified retirement plan and make under a certain level of AGI. For 2017, the maximum credit is $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples.
  • Child and dependent care credit – Provides a credit of up to $2,100 for expenses related to the care of children and other dependents, though the amount decreases as your AGI increases. Parents with young children in child care are the most common recipients of this credit.
  • Medical expense deduction – Medical expenses that exceed 10% of your AGI are deductible. The lower your AGI, the more likely you are to qualify for this deduction.
  • 0% dividend and capital gains tax rate – If you’re in the 15% income tax bracket or below, any dividends and long-term capital gains you earn during the year are not taxed. Lowering your AGI could move you into this lower tax bracket.

Making a Smarter Decision

There’s a lot more to the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. And the truth is that the more you dive in, the more you realize just how powerful the traditional IRA is.

That’s not to say that you should never use a Roth IRA. It’s a fantastic account, and it certainly has its place. It’s just that the tax breaks a traditional IRA offers are often understated.

It’s also important to recognize that every situation is different and that it’s impossible to know ahead of time which account will come out ahead. There are too many variables and too many unknowns to say for sure.

But with the information above, you should be able to make a smarter choice that makes it a little bit easier to reach retirement sooner and with more money.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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Featured, Investing, News

The Basics of a Backdoor Roth IRA

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The Basics of a Backdoor Roth IRA

One of the nice things about making more money is that you have the opportunity to save more money.

But one of the downsides of making more money is that you eventually run into some restrictions on where you can save it.

Specifically, the IRS limits the amount you can contribute to a Roth IRA and the amount you can deduct for contributions to a Traditional IRA based on your income. Once your income reaches a certain point, those accounts are limited in their use.

However, there’s a loophole that can allow you to keep contributing to a Roth IRA no matter how much money you make.

It’s called the backdoor Roth IRA. Here’s how it works.

The Basics of a Backdoor Roth IRA

For 2017, Roth IRA contributions are not allowed once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $196,000 for married couples, or $133,000 for single filers (source). And if you’re participating in an employer retirement plan like a 401(k), you would also be prohibited from deducting Traditional IRA contributions at that income level.

But there are two additional provisions that, when used together, can allow you to work around these limits:

  1. You’re allowed to make nondeductible contributions to an IRA no matter how much money you make.
  2. You’re allowed to convert money from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA no matter how much money you make.

So let’s say that between you and your spouse, you make more than the $196,000 limit for contributing to a Roth IRA. And let’s say that you also participate in a 401(k), meaning you can’t deduct Traditional IRA contributions.

Here are the workaround steps you could take to get money into a Roth IRA:

  1. Open a new Traditional IRA.
  2. Contribute to your new Traditional IRA. You won’t get a tax deduction for the contribution, but as you’ll soon see, that won’t matter.
  3. Wait until you receive your first statement from your new Traditional IRA, which should be in about one month. There is some disagreement around how long you should wait, but one month seems to be a fairly safe bet.
  4. Convert the money in your new Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Whichever company you have your IRA with can help you do this (it’s pretty straightforward).
  5. As part of the conversion you will be taxed on any growth that’s happened since contributing to the Traditional IRA, but since it’s only been a month or so, that should be minimal. You won’t be taxed on the amount you contributed, since that was already after-tax money.

And that’s how a backdoor Roth IRA works. And now that your money is inside a Roth IRA, you’ll eventually be able to withdraw it tax-free.

Of Course, There’s Always a Catch…

If you don’t have any existing Traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs, or SIMPLE IRAs, then it really is that simple. But if you do, there’s a big caveat you need to be aware of.

When you convert from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, the IRS considers all of your IRAs to be part of one big pot, and it considers the money you convert to come proportionally from each part of that pot.

Here’s an example to show you what that means:

  • James has $20,000 in a Traditional IRA. All contributions to that IRA were deductible, so this money has never been taxed.
  • This year James makes too much to deduct contributions to a Traditional IRA, but he likes the idea of a backdoor Roth IRA. So he opens a new Traditional IRA, completely separate from his old one, and makes a $5,000 nondeductible contribution.
  • He converts the $5,000 in that new, nondeductible Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
  • From the perspective of the IRS, that $5,000 conversion was actually made from a single $25,000 IRA, even though James has two separate accounts.
  • Since 80% of James’ combined IRA money has never been taxed, 80% of his Roth IRA conversion will be taxed.
  • This means that $4,000 of James’ conversion will be taxed. Assuming James is in the 28% tax bracket, he will owe $1,120 on the conversion. And it may be more when you include state income taxes.

In other words, having an existing Traditional IRA that you’ve made deductible contributions to throws a big wrench in your plans to do the backdoor Roth IRA by subjecting a potentially significant portion of your conversion to taxes.

The Way Around the Catch

All hope is not lost. There’s a way to do the backdoor Roth IRA tax-free even if you have money in an existing Traditional IRA, SEP IRA, or SIMPLE IRA.

All you have to do is roll all of that existing IRA money into a 401(k) or other employer retirement plan BEFORE executing the backdoor Roth IRA. Then, when you convert your nondeductible contributions to a Roth IRA, there won’t be any other IRA money to look at and you’ll avoid the big tax hit.

Now, this may or may not be possible depending on your situation. First, you have to currently be participating in an employer retirement plan. And second, your plan has to accept rollovers from all of your existing IRAs, which they may or may not do. You can ask your employer for specific details.

It may also not be desirable for other reasons. Many 401(k)s are littered with high fees, and one of the advantages of having your money in an IRA is that you have much more control over both your investment options and how much you pay.

But if it’s allowed and if your 401(k) has reasonable investment options at a reasonable price, it can be a worthwhile move that frees you up to do the backdoor Roth IRA.

Tread Carefully

The backdoor Roth IRA is a legitimate tactic that’s used by a lot of people every single year.

But there are a number of moving parts and a number of potential hang-ups, so it makes sense to tread carefully and potentially even seek out the help of a professional before making any final moves. A financial planner could help you decide whether it’s the right move, and an accountant could help you navigate the tax issues.

Still, when it’s done right, a backdoor Roth IRA gives you access to a significant amount of tax-free money you wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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College Students and Recent Grads, Strategies to Save

Using a Roth IRA as a College Savings Account

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Pay-yourself-first_full

Many parents start stressing about the affordability of college well before application time. Given the steady rise of college expenses, some parents start saving as early as infancy.

If you’re worried about saving enough for college, there are several different planning strategies you could implement as part of your overall plan to pay for your child’s college education. A 529 College Saving plan is one of the most popular tools, but it’s not the only option.

One often overlooked way to help save and pay for tuition is to use your Roth IRA retirement account as a college savings account.

Why would someone tap a retirement account to save for college? Because there are some unique advantages:

  1. You can withdraw without penalty or taxes before retirement
  2. The balance isn’t counted against you when determining financial aid
  3. The money is still yours, without penalty, if your child doesn’t go to college

You should consult a tax professional before making any decisions about utilizing a retirement fund to save for college. Also keep in mind that tax laws and loopholes can always change between now and when your child will be attending college, so saving exclusively in a Roth IRA is probably not your best strategy.

1. Financial benefits of Roth IRA accounts

Roth IRA accounts offer a rare break from the usual tax disadvantages of withdrawing from other assets and savings accounts. According to Scott Hanson with CNBC, “Roth IRAs enjoy a rather unique tax treatment. Withdrawals are treated as a ‘return of contribution’ first and as earnings second.”

What this means is that you are always allowed to withdraw from your Roth IRA, tax and penalty free, up to the amount that you have contributed. For example, if you have saved the maximum allowable amount (usually $5, 500) into your account for 5 years, you will be able to withdraw $27,500 without penalty. Having access to that amount of money, penalty free, is enormously beneficial for helping to pay for the rising costs of college.

2. Roth IRA accounts aren’t considered for FAFSA

Any student looking to receive federal aid for their higher education costs needs to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid Form (FAFSA). FAFSA will assess your child’s ability to pay, including the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC takes all of your family’s income, savings, and benefits into account for deciding the level of financial aid necessary for your child’s college education.

This is where Roth IRA accounts become a valuable asset as part of your overall college saving plan. When you report all of your assets on the FAFSA application form, 529 College Saving Plans also have to be reported as part of your overall income. This means that you will actually be penalized for saving into a 529 account, and you won’t receive as much financial aid as you could have, had you not done your due diligence by saving for your child’s college education.

3. It can be used if your child decides not to go to college

At the end of the day, a Roth IRA is still a retirement savings vehicle. No matter whether you choose distribute the funds for other purposes or not, it will always be there to use during retirement. There won’t be any fees or penalties for re-designating the account’s purpose.

If however, you choose to save all of your money for your child’s college fund into a 529 account, you will end up facing severe tax penalties to withdraw or transfer that money for a non-education related reason if you child ends up not attending school.

By taking a non-qualifying distribution, you would likely pay a 10% penalty on the earnings as well as have to pay taxes on the distributions.

Disadvantages of using a Roth IRA

Please note that while Roth IRA’s are not included as part of your taxable income on the FAFSA, any amount that you do withdraw this year from your account will be considered as taxable income on the next year’s form. For example, if you decide to withdraw from your IRA to pay for child’s dorm living costs instead of getting a loan, when you fill out the FAFSA form for their sophomore year, you may be denied as much aid as you received the year before, since you technically had an increase in income when you had access to the money from your account.

One loophole to employ as a method to bypass that penalty is to wait to withdraw any money from your Roth IRA account until after you have filled out the FAFSA for your child’s last year of college. You could have your child take out loans for the interim and then withdraw from your accounts once they finish school to help pay off those loans. Even if you are not yet the required 59 ½ years old to pull money from the account penalty free, the usual 10% penalty fined for early withdrawals from your account will be waived for any college related expenses.

Also, as a parenting bonus, it’s a helpful method for ensuring that your child does graduate, because they will know that you won’t help them pay back their school loans until after they’re finished.

Can Anyone Use the Roth IRA?

The IRS does have income limitations for who is eligible for a Roth IRA. The chart below from IRS.gov outlines income limitations from the IRS.

Roth IRA contribution limits

Married parents filing jointly who more than $193,000 are not eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. Single parents who earn more than $131,000 are also ineligible. In these cases, a 529 Plan may be the best course of action when saving for college.

A Roth IRA is good for diversifying your payment methods

A Roth IRA can be just one part of a healthy retirement and college planning strategy. Having penalty free access to your account is just one beneficial way to save for college, but it shouldn’t be your only way to pay for the rising costs of college.

Also, while using a Roth IRA as a college savings account has its merits, I absolutely caution against using the entirety of your retirement savings account to pay for your child’s college education. Your child will always be able to get a school loan, but you won’t have forever to save for your retirement living expenses.

Only use your Roth IRA as a college savings account if you have access to other retirement funds for your actual retirement expenses. Take care to not let your college saving plan negatively affect your own ability to live and save money for retirement.

Kristi Muse of Moderate Muse

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Kristi Muse |

Kristi Muse is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kristi at kristi@magnifymoney.com

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Bargains and Deals

Get Up to $500 By Switching Your IRA to Ally

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Please note: this article was originally published on January 15, 2015 and this offer is no longer available.

Leaving a job in the next five months? Fed up with your current IRA provider? Or do you just love a bonus offer? Then Ally may have an enticing proposal for you

For the next five months (1/1/15 – 5/31/15), Ally Bank is offering up to $500 in bonus money for making a qualifying rollover or transfer from outside Ally Bank to a new or existing Ally IRA CD or IRA Online Savings Account.

A qualifying deposit includes rollovers, trustee-to-trustee transfers and contributions. Just remember, you can only make a maximum contribution of $5,500 ($6,500 if your 50 or older) into a Traditional or Roth IRA in 2015. You won’t be able to earn the bonus offer if you simply open and contribute to an Ally IRA.

If you have a SEP-IRA through an employee or due to self-employment, you can contribute 25 percent of compensation with a limit of $265,000 or $53,000. This will make you eligible for part the bonus. Although, the contribution does not have to be made all at once, the cut off date to earn the bonus is May 31, 2015.

The bonus offer has a tiered structure:

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 4.24.53 PM

Unless you’re able to contribute $53,000 into a SEP-IRA, the only way to take advantage of this bonus will likely be from a rollover. Rollovers can take weeks to complete, so if you want to get this offer, be sure to start making moves by mid-March.

This isn’t quick money. Eligible account holders will receive the bonus on July 31, 2015. Ally states it will be deposited into “into the Ally IRA Online Savings Account or IRA CD that received the last transaction to reach the deposit requirement.”

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Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Erin Lowry
Erin Lowry |

Erin Lowry is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erin@magnifymoney.com

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